January 2008 Issue
View From the Porch
A road atlas becomes a treasure map to some memorable conversations.
Greatness can be born or made, but sometimes it is nailed together.
A cold wind rattles my windows as I wish for spring, and a porch. I cannot help it. I am a stepchild, raised in a world of stepchildren. Porches are where we played as babies between our mother’s house-shoes, and later, as teenagers, courted clumsily. Porches were my space before MySpace. Neighbors were always welcome — “visiting,” the old folks christened it. Porches were where the outside world came calling, even if it was only the letter carrier.
I have never seen a castle with one. Or a prison.
I learned to listen on porches. We are not a shouting people. Ohio is not a shouting state. Our rivers do not thunder so much as meander, aimless as a conversation. Our earth rarely quakes, except when the Buckeyes play Michigan. We do not flood much; just enough to make us thankful it does not flood more. Nature here whispers.
People talk on porches. I have woven a life out of their stories.
As long as I can remember, I have put words to paper. An editor would bark my name and I would bring back the story, tied neatly with typewriter ribbon. I rattled across Ohio in an old car with a good radio, seeking enlightenment and beauty. I learned every word to “Hang on Sloopy” and became an expert on the cuisine of the Dog-N-Suds instead.
To each assignment I brought a professional skepticism. To some I wore a tie. I met some interesting people.
I watched “Psycho” in an empty theater with Tony Perkins, and stood beside César Chávez in the crush at a farm workers’ rally. I walked a college campus with the brother of the Dalai Lama (we talked the Marx Brothers, I recall). I rode a campaign bus with a man who wanted to be governor, and spoke on a jailhouse telephone with a man who hoped for a pardon from one. For a time I wrote about restaurants, and met a lot of high-strung chefs who could turn a five-line recipe into a three-act play. I toted a rich ignorance and a pencil, and wondered if anything I wrote would last.
I would find my niche. But I would have to get lost first.
The back roads wind through Ohio’s heart. Drive enough of them and the traffic signs begin spouting poetry. For a writer, a state with towns named Congo and Chuckery and Chili is truly blessed — and we are not even out of the Cs. Any man who could pass “Stringtown” and not be curious has no soul. I guessed there were real stories to be found there, and I was determined to prove it. The dog-eared road atlas I carried became a treasure map.
From the interstate, the sheds and houses rush by, specs of tin and sticks dotting nowhere roads. But every back road is someone’s front yard. The folks who lived there would listen and nod and — after a handshake — point me toward the widow-down-the-street’s steps or to old Mr. So-and-So who has a story, you bet. Old Mr. So-and-So might not let a stranger track questions all over his new parlor carpet, but that was no obstacle.
Let’s talk on the porch, I would say.
I am not a quick writer — stone carvers work faster. But on those borrowed wings, I could fly.
I sat on the steps of a century house near Marion with a farmer whose people had worked that land since 1853. He pointed out hot tubs in the distance. The 21st century was crawling closer to his orchard, and he wondered if there would be any dirt left for another generation to till.
In East Liverpool, a porch sitter told me about the town’s plan to haul a surplus B-52 bomber onto a nearby hill. The plane — it is as big as a football field and looks as lethal as judgment — would replace the town’s current tourist attraction, the world’s largest teapot. That made me sad, but I could not tell you why.
The Buxton Inn in Granville boasts a two-story porch. I sat in the garden and heard how the inn’s former manager, Major Horton Buxton, likes to wander the tavern occasionally. This was noteworthy, since there has been a tombstone with Maj. Buxton’s name in the graveyard since 1905.
From a stoop in Berea, a talking man led me through Inca ruins in Peru and thousand-year-old monasteries in India. He had traveled to both, living out of a knapsack, because the world is a big place and he did not want to miss seeing most of it. At the Taj Mahal one morning, he passed a local wearing a Cleveland Browns sweatshirt, and decided it was time to come home.
I met a woman at a front-yard bake sale — this was after a wrong turn in Licking County, I believe — whose specialty was fried pies. I asked her how one fried a pie, exactly. “Well,” she answered, “you just do.”
Oh, I said.
I remember thinking that it had been a year since I had shaken a hand without calluses.
An editor back then told me I had a knack for connecting with the “common man.” It was a compliment, I guess. I did not have the heart to tell her the only thing “common” about these people was that there were so many of them.
If there is no porch, we improvise.
In Sidney, folks gather at The Spot restaurant to swap stories and enjoy the best cream pies on the planet. The Spot feels like a porch, with babies and gossip being passed between tables. I ate the banana pie and grinned like a rummage-sale Buddha.
The stories I remember best were woven out of heartbreak.
I attended a memorial service in Defiance for a Vietnam War soldier whose remains had just been returned home, 35 years late. There were tears inside the funeral home, but on the parlor’s back steps the soldier’s childhood friends swapped stories. Grown men and women became kids again in the telling, racing their bikes down Perry Street. I got lost in the words.
I do not think about my own funeral, much. But it would be nice to be remembered that way — with stories. Laughter will stir the plastic flowers over my grave if there is no breeze.
I have rocked on the skinny verandas of crumbling project houses and listened to despair munching away like termites. I have passed quiet afternoons on Victorian wraparounds as white as a store-bought smile, and so grand I would not have blinked if the 84th Ohio had marched past on their way to Shiloh. Those porches were in the same town, only a few minutes distant, but they were a million miles apart. The only thing they had in common was the hospitality of the people.
Take away the people, and porches are just lumber.
The folks I met were always kind to me, a stranger with more questions than manners. Sometimes I would carry home a gift, like a jar of homemade pickle relish. That was their nature. I think they would have been just as kind to an encyclopedia salesman.
In the end I repaid that kindness by stealing from them.
I did not make off with the heirloom silver. But those hours spent on porches have mixed with every drop of ink I’ve ever spilled, writing. I did not find a moral wrapped neatly inside each life — these were people, not fortune cookies — but they changed me, too.
The restless man in Berea showed me that our real story is always back where we came from. The Buxton Inn reminded me to always do a good job, because you never know who’s watching. Change is inevitable, even if you are wrapped in apple blossoms in a Marion orchard, in times when it seems there are more bomber planes than teapots. When I am weighed down by too much advice and frozen by too many options, I move forward anyway. Because, well, you just do.
The porches are quiet now, empty except for holiday lights that should have been retired weeks ago and will soon threaten both decorum and marriages. I wish for spring, and a porch. It is not a sad feeling, exactly. It is more like looking into the cupboard and, with months of winter still ahead, seeing just one jar of pickle relish.
A good writer would paint a pretty word picture of his own porch now. But I live in a city apartment. There is not a decent stoop within bus fare. I could not tell you what my neighbors look like.
John Hyduk is a freelance writer based in Lakewood.